Archive for Citizen Kane


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2016 by dcairns


Finally reading The Smiler with the Knife, written by Nicholas Blake (who was really the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel) in 1939, immediately optioned by RKO and briefly developed by Orson Welles as his Hollywood debut, after THE HEART OF DARKNESS fell through and before CITIZEN KANE came through. It’s an item in Welles bios that always intrigued me.


Years ago I read Blake’s The Beast Must Die, which has no relation to the Amicus werewolf whodunnit (spoiler: the werewolf dunnit), but which was decently filmed by Chabrol as QUE LA BETE MEURE in 1969, and as LA BESTIA DEBE MORIR in 1952 by my man Roman Vinoly Barreto. The best bit of the book is a lengthy confession written by a man plotting the murder of the motorist who drunkenly killed his child. Then Blake’s posh private eye, Nigel Strangeways comes along and solves it, and the story devolves into a conventional country house kind of thriller, sitting uncomfortably with the raw emotion of the killer POV sequence. Chabrol certainly noticed that, and excised Strangeways from his movie altogether. I haven’t been able to see the Barreto, but he may have done the same, or maybe he just changed the names. Has Nigel Strangeways ever made it to the screen?


Poor Nigel is largely absent from The Smiler with the Knife too, with his wife Georgia, intrepid explorer, taking centre stage, going underground to unmask a fascist plot to take over Britain — the aristocratic leader of the secret society falls in love with her and she has to betray and outwit him. Events rapidly overtook the novel with the outbreak of war, but Welles planned to relocate the story to America, with the villain a Howard Hughes type. Ironic, since Hughes would end up owning RKO.


Welles also included, according to Joseph McBride’s Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?, a Hearst-like newspaper baron called W.N. Howells — now, presumably Welles had in mind for himself the big bad guy role, whose character has quite a bit in common with his eventual role in THE STRANGER (secret fascist hiding in plain view, in love with a woman who does not share his sinister sympathies), but “W.N. Howells” sounds so much like a misheard “Orson Welles” that it’s hard to believe he wasn’t already sizing up the part for himself.

Blake/Day-Lewis makes his main villain a romantic millionaire figure, toying humorously with the affections of countless women but falling dangerously in love with Georgia. He also ends up blinded in a fire she starts, anticipating Welles role as Rochester in JANE AYRE EYRE. His styling as an “attractive brute” type may have been a stretch for Orson, but no doubt appealed, and one aspect of his description, his “oddly lumbering, bear-like gait,” fits Welles, no twinkletoes, to a tee.


Nobody seems to have produced a really detailed synopsis of Welles’ adaptation, and it’s not published or available to read online, but I recall (correctly, I hope) that Welles wanted Lucille Ball for the lead. This would have changed Georgia’s character considerably, and a good thing too — Blake/Day-Lewis has to work hard to even begin to make plausible her role as an undercover agent when she’s well-known as the daughter-in-law of a Scotland Yard commissioner whose job is to expose the conspirators. I imagine Welles making her much more of a regular working girl, perhaps anticipating her role in the delightful 1947 thriller LURED (Douglas Sirk), in which she plays a taxi dancer going undercover to snare a serial killer.

The latter part of the book is a very Hitchcockian chase thriller, in the 39 STEPS mode. Welles had some kind of inherent antipathy to Hitchcock, co-existing with an attraction to often similar material (but what attracted him about it was obviously quite different). It would have been fascinating to see what he’d make of this.

Oh well, we’ll just have to make do with CITIZEN KANE.

The Sunday Intertitle: Bava Lava

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2015 by dcairns


I’m finally reading Tim Lucas’s magisterial Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark. I can’t fault the scholarship — few filmmakers are lucky enough to get books as exhaustive and considered and respectful as this. It’s all the sweeter since Bava was such an underrated artisan in his lifetime.

I wouldn’t dare to contest Lucas’ unparalleled expertise in this subject, but one little bit where I think he’s not quite right gave me an idea for today’s piece.

The book not only examines Bava’s directorial legacy, it probes into his work as cinematographer, and also provides as full an account of the career of his father, Eugenio Bava, cinematographer and visual effects artist of the silent era. Lucas examines the legendary CABIRIA, whose effects are jointly ascribed to Bava Snr. and the great Segundo de Chomon. Chomon usually gets most of the credit, and Lucas thinks this is probably unfair — he claims Chomon’s effects “were usually rooted in the principles of stop-motion animation.” In fact, I think it’s going to be impossible to make any calls on who did what, other than that we are told Bava Snr. built the model Vesuvius. Chomon’s imitations of Georges Melies’ style saw him performing every kind of trick effect known to the age, to which he added the innovation of stop motion, cunningly integrated into live action sequences. I think it’s fair to say than any of the effects in CABIRIA might have been the work of either man.

Lucas goes on to focus on one spectacular shot of the erupting volcano, a composite in which the bubbling miniature shares screen space with a line of fleeing extras and sheep (do the sheep know they’re fleeing? Perhaps they’re just walking). Lucas notes that smoke pots in the foreground, placed near the extras, waft fumes up across the model volcano, which makes him think the shot could not have been achieved as a matte effect. He deduces that the volcano was filmed through a sheet of angled glass, one corner of which was brightly lit to reflect the extras.

I would suggest that the shot is in fact a pure double exposure, with no mattes. The volcano is dark apart from the bright lava. The shot of the extras is also dark apart from the extras, sheep, and smoke. Double exposed on the same negative, the bright parts register and the black parts stay black. Thus the white smoke can drift up through the frame, appearing transparently over both the darkness and the bubbling Bava-lava.

belle et la bete end

More examples of this effect: at the end of Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE, two characters fly off into the sky. The highlights on their figures cut through the superimposed cloudscape, but the shadow areas become transparent, phantasmal, in a way I don’t think the filmmakers intended; and in CITIZEN KANE, Welles crossfades slowly into flashback, with Joseph Cotten remaining solidly visible long after his background has disappeared, a trick achieved by fading the lighting down on the set while keeping Cotten brightly lit — no matte was needed, and had Cotten puffed on one of those cigars he was talking about, the smoke could have drifted across the incoming scenery, provided a sidelight picked it out of the darkness.

Lucas’s reflection trick, a kind of Pepper’s Ghost illusion, would have anticipated the more refined Schufftan effect by more than a decade (Eugen Schüfftan used mirrors to combine miniatures with full-scale action within the same, live shot on METROPOLIS) and Lucas suggests that Mario Bava resented this claiming of an invention his father had anticipated, and makes his disapproval known by including a character called Schüftan in his movie KILL, BABY, KILL. Since I don’t believe Eugenio anticipated Eugen in this technique, I think we can say that the use of the name Schüftan for the film’s heroine is more of an affectionate tribute to a great cinematographer, effects artist and a near-namesake of his dad.

Quibbles aside, I repeat: this is an amazing book.

God Send the Prince a Better Companion

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2015 by dcairns


MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OR ORSON WELLES has one decisive thing in its favour — it’s on the side of its subject. American documentaries about Welles have tended to take an antagonistic view — there’s something about seeing Welles as, ultimately, a failure, which is immensely comforting to mediocrities. It’s wrong to aspire to greatness, you’ll never make it, so Three Cheers for the Ordinary! Showmanship instead of Genius.

But Chuck Workman is a really terrible name to have if you’re setting out to make a film celebrating genius, I have to say. God, it’s really unfair to pick on a guy for his name, isn’t it? Forget I said it.

The problem with the documentary… no, I can’t make it that simple. First among the documentary’s problems is that it tries to cram too much in. This was always going to be tough, when you look at the number of books and documentaries and fictional representations of Welles — such Simon Callow’s still-unfinished trilogy of biographies. How do you do justice to all that, if you’re tackling the plays as well as the films, the incomplete, unreleased works as well as the known classics? You don’t.

The decision to include everything, or a bit of everything, looks heroic at first but is possibly the result of indecision. What else can explain the fleeting reference to the controversial restoration of OTHELLO — “It has a few problems,” — a subject dropped as soon as it’s raised, with absolutely no exposition of what the problems are. Even getting into this subject takes us out of chronology and into Welles’ posthumous reputation, so it derails the narrative. This is a movie that insists on touching upon every point but is in too much of a hurry to elucidate anything.


The most egregious effect of the need for speed is the treatment of the film clips, all of which are recut, compressed, turned into edited highlights — Workman even plays music underneath to further condense, distort. His idea of the kind of edit you can get away with is also hopelessly optimistic, so that he chops lines together as in a movie trailer, resulting in bizarre non-sequiturs, making blurting blipverts out of some of the best-known scenes in American cinema. When the expected line doesn’t follow, or follows five seconds too soon, the audience member familiar with the clip is thrown for a loop. The audience member new to all this is in an even worse position, force-fed a bowdlerized, mangled version of LADY FROM SHANGHAI or THE THIRD MAN. It’s hugely ironic that a movie which takes Welles’ part should re-edit his films as viciously as ever Columbia or RKO could manage.

Added to this, quality control is low: an early montage of framed photos of Welles features one shot with a Magnum watermark pasted across it — stolen from the internet, defaced, not paid for, thrown out there in the hopes that we won’t notice the very thing we’re being shown. Music choices are hackneyed, anachronistic, inappropriate (L’Apres-Midi  d’un Faun for THE TRIAL??) and rather than bolstering the emotion of the clips they play under — the presumed purpose — they frequently undermine it. Clips are sourced from all over, some of them seemingly from YouTube, so the resolution fluctuates like crazy.

Most of the best stuff comes from Welles’ giant BBC interview, broadcast as Orson Welles: Stories from a Life in Film, but this is hacked up too. There’s nothing as egregious as the ending of The Battle for Citizen Kane, which has Welles saying “I think I made essentially a mistake staying in motion pictures,” but leaves off what he said next — “but it’s a mistake I can’t regret,” which is followed by a heartbreaking, inspiring speech about his love of film. But Workman does use the interview as a source for random pull-quotes, so that some lines do duty for subjects they originally had nothing to do with. It’s a very insidious form of misquotation. Sometimes, people whose big mouths have gotten them in trouble complain of being “quoted out of context” (all quotes are, by their nature, somewhat out of context) — Welles is being quoted in contexts he never knew anything about, contexts devised thirty years after his death by a bloke called Chuck whose day job is editing the Oscars.

The compassion for Welles is admirable, and I think the section on his love of food was skillfully done — affectionate without degenerating into fat jokes. and there’s a nice bit where different Welles interviews are cut together to show how he would vary a story each time he told it. Where the movie has a strong idea, it’s on solid ground, but this rarely happens.


Of the critical thinkers on display, James Naremore makes the best contribution. I would have liked more of Christopher Welles and even the dreaded Beatrice. Oja Kodar’s bit comes across like unedited rushes, jumping from subject to subject which may well be the way she talks, but the filmmaker is supposed to supply shape. She says some lovely stuff, and announces her willingness to be shamelessly indiscrete — I wish she was allowed to be.

Still, this could be an important moment even if the film is mainly a missed opportunity — a film from America which is resoundingly pro-Welles, which sees the truncated and unfinished films as the fault of a system rather than of the man, which debunks “fear of completion” and admits that the Philistinism of the film industry is the more serious problem — this is a new development, and worthy of celebration in this centennial year.